Once Upon a Time in Marketing

“There is a reason humans are so fascinated with stories,” says Nancy Duarte, author of Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences and slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations . “People are interested in transformation, and in a well-told story; they see themselves in that story.” The classic three-part story structure is:

1. Set up the hero as a likable person.

2. The hero faces difficulty, which he or she works to overcome.

3. The hero emerges, transformed.

“When we see people overcoming roadblocks, it gives us hope, and that creates an emotional connection,” Duarte says. Applied to business, this means we want to support entrepreneurs whom we identify as those heroes—or products that help its customers be that hero. If two products are equal in value with the same benefits and outcome, we will choose the product that we connect to emotionally every time. “But to get there, you have to tell a human story that connects your story to a higher purpose. Don’t talk about making stuff just to make stuff. Tell a story about products that make the soul sing or make the world a better place.”

This simple story structure can be applied powerfully to any facet of your business, says Peter Guber, CEO of Mandalay Entertainment, co-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and author of Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story . Position your employees as the hero of the company story to achieve goals, identify vendors and partners as the hero to bolster synergies, or find ways to insert the customer into the role of hero or heroine.

Guber points to Under Armour; the athletic wear maker capitalized on an untapped mass market for performance apparel by positioning the customer as the star of his or her own story. “They asked customers: ‘What do you want to be? A great dancer, a terrific yoga practitioner, a successful golfer? This product will help you be the hero of your own narrative,’ ” says Guber, whose film credits include producing Rain Man and Batman. “The product became a supporting player in the customer’s vision statement.”

To find and cultivate powerful stories, listen to what your customers and employees are talking about, says Paul Smith, author of Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives That Captivate, Convince, and Inspire .

Smith says his heart broke a little to learn the story of a Pizza Hut in Springdale, Ark. One evening after the store closed, a woman came in and asked the employee for a meatball sandwich. Upon being told the restaurant didn’t offer such a meal, she explained that her husband was in Stage 4 cancer and had lost his appetite—except that he now craved a meatball sandwich. The employee improvised with a meatball from the spaghetti, pizza sauce and garlic bread and charged a reasonable price.

The next day the woman called the store to say her husband had passed away after eating the sandwich and that “there wasn’t much she could do to give him comfort, but that he ate and loved the sub, and it gave her solace to provide what would be her husband’s last meal.”

What saddens Smith is that this 25-year-old story was never shared outside the company. “A fabulous story like that shows what great customer service looks like, and it could be used for all kinds of reputation-building,” he says. “Businesspeople think these emotional stories are inappropriate in the workplace. But if people are talking about it, it means it’s a good story. And if it’s a good story inside the company, it’s a good story outside the company.”


Case Studies

Chipotle: The Power of a Brand-Free Story

Sometimes the best way to position a brand is through a story that doesn’t mention the brand at all. That’s been one of the secrets to the runaway success of Chipotle, the fast-food burrito chain that has become known for stocking its more than 1,200 restaurants with sustainable and humane food sourcing. The international company has an usual backstory: Founder and CEO Steve Ells had minimal restaurant experience and no business background when he opened his first burrito shop in Denver in 1993, and a few years later became involved in the “conscientious eaters” movement, sourcing most products from sustainable, local or organic sources.

Ells’ story is certainly media-friendly, but it’s the innovative storytelling campaigns in recent years that have put Chipotle on the media map. The brand’s Cultivate music and food festivals are held several times a year in different U.S. cities, attracting almost 30,000 people. The free event features interactive, educational games, videos and learning experiences designed to tell festival-goers about the sustainable food movement—independent of Chipotle’s involvement in said movement.

But the big storytelling has come from a series of videos focused on the same topic. The most notable, Back to the Start, was featured first online, then in more than 5,000 movie theaters, and finally at the 2012 Grammys. As Willie Nelson sings the iconic Coldplay song “The Scientist,” the 2:20-minute animation elegantly tells the story of a farmer who first commercializes his pig operation then returns it to a free-range, sustainable model. The video is moving and entertaining; the music, recognizable and touching; and nowhere is there any mention of Chipotle—save for the brand mention on YouTube, where more than 7 million people have viewed the video.

“People are inherently suspicious of brands telling stories,” says Chief Marketing Officer Mark Crumpacker. “By telling a story that has real-life roots without distracting the viewer with mention of brands, their guard is less likely to be up, and they are more likely to absorb the message.”

Crumpacker says Chipotle’s research finds that this kind of storytelling is very effective in capturing its target audience, but the return on investment is not immediate. “Even though 40 million people watching the Grammys saw that video, people were not rushing to the restaurants the next day,” he says. “This has a long-lasting, meaningful impact, but it is a different kind of marketing.”


Trupanion: Making Insurance Cuddly

“Insurance is an unemotional product at the end of day. It’s two pieces of paper and a staple,” says Anne Tomsic, vice president of communication for pet insurer Trupanion. “In order for our people to share it effectively, we have to be able to bring it to life.”

In the year since Tomsic was hired (she is also president of a video production company she founded), Trupanion has produced several real-life video stories. Featured on the company website and YouTube channels, these videos tell heart-wrenching stories of how the pet insurance helped people pay for lifesaving procedures for their pets. One example is the story of Gracie, an accident-prone mixed-breed puppy whose owners could not afford the $8,000 surgery bill required to save her life after a fall, but fortunately had a Trupanion policy. So Trupanion reimbursed the couple, who are featured holding and playing today with a happy, healthy Gracie.

While certainly compelling to pet owners, it is the sales force that has the most success showing this video to veterinarians—gatekeepers of whether pet insurance is accepted or recommended at their practice. “We hear stories from our sales team in the field that veterinarians say, ‘It’s not my responsibility to promote pet insurance,’ ” Tomsic says. “But after watching the video, they ask for more information and often change their minds.”

In addition to being shown at industry events and trade shows, these customer story videos are emailed to new customers upon buying the insurance. “People email right back and say, ‘Wow, we made the right choice,’ ” Tomsic says.


Kona Ice: Story Time for Franchisees

tony Lamb loves telling of how he was inspired to start Kona Ice, the gourmet ice cream truck franchise he launched in 2007. As the story goes, Lamb, his wife and four kids had just moved into their new suburban home and were in the backyard when they heard an ice cream truck’s jingle. “Even though my kids had never heard that sound, they instinctively knew what it was,” Lamb says today. The family came to the front yard to greet the vendor and encountered a less-than-appetizing sight: “A 1972 Chevy converted van rolls around with smoke bellowing out, and the guy driving is a total derelict smoking a cigarette,” Lamb says, laughing. “My daughter literally screamed in horror before she managed to order her Popsicle.”

Lamb has a gregarious, funny way of telling the story that makes any listener chuckle, and nearly everyone hearing his story can relate. By starting Kona Ice in 2007, Lamb wanted to capitalize on the familiarity of that ice cream truck jingle and to create a new, positive and family-friendly image associated with the ice cream truck experience. This story and information about how-to seminars are posted on the company website, accessible by password, to engage and educate interested and committed Kona Ice truck owners. People relate to Lamb, and that makes his job selling franchises that much easier. “People are always telling me how much they can relate to that story, and they are often surprised to find me to be such an approachable guy,” he says. “In no way do I come off as this mega-guru.”

This low-key approach is consistent with Kona Ice’s franchise model, which costs a fixed $3,000 in royalties a year, plus $250 for advertising buy-in. “That is the kind of business we like to run, and it works,” Lamb says. The company added 180 franchises in 18 months of 2011 and 2012, and 75 percent of franchisees buy second trucks within two years. There are currently more than 300 franchise units in four states. “That is a validating business model,” Lamb says.


Greensations: People Trust a Tale of Failure

wayne Perry has parlayed the failure of a past business into the success of a current one. In 2004 and with $350, Perry invented Sinus Buster, which he says was the first hot-pepper nasal spray intended as a headache reliever. The product received shout-outs from Oprah Winfrey, Howard Stern and other media luminaries. When major chains including Walgreens, CVS and Wal-Mart took notice, he signed on with a venture capital firm to expand the company in 2008. But the deal quickly soured as the new owners changed Perry’s invention and shut him out of decision-making. Stock prices fell, Perry says.

That is the bad news. The good news is that the bad news has been an enormous boost to his current company, Greensations, maker of natural healthcare products like Sinus Plumber pepper and horseradish spray and Wrinkle Butter, an earthworm poop wrinkle cream. Perry launched Greensations in 2010 and expects to gross $1 million by 2014.

And while the natural, USA-made products seem to be a hit with bloggers and customers who try them, it’s often Perry’s backstory of innovation, self-made success, failure and redemption that attracts the attention of trade press and retailers. “We use our backstory to gain the trust of retailers who rely on prior sales results,” Perry says. “For a new company, you don’t have a proven sales record, but having a founder who actually built a national brand gets our foot in the door.”

Perry’s story is broadcast via social media communications and by bloggers who are invited to try and review his products. Consumers love the story, too. After posting a picture of himself and a blurb about Sinus Buster at the bottom of Greensations’ homepage, bounce rates from the site dropped by 50 percent, Perry says. “That’s huge for web sales. For a small company trying to compete against the big guys and gain national distribution, web sales are as important as our wholesale accounts,” he says.

Don't know what your story is? Read: "How to Find Your Story" to help you uncover it.


Emma Johnson is a business journalist, gender-equality activist, and founder of the world's largest community of single moms, WealthySingleMommy.com. Emma and her best-selling book, The Kickass Single Mom, and her organization, Moms for Shared Parenting, have been featured in hundreds of national and international media outlets.

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